Theatre In Focus: Sizwe Banzi is Dead

There's a confidence that comes from directing close to a hundred theatrical productions, writing about the art of theatre and direction, and being considered the most important and influential theatre director of the last fifty years. That confidence has made Peter Brook comfortable in his field, enough to not feel the need to be flashy. Rather, as he's done through most of his career, he finds the essence of each piece and expresses it through a simplicity, wit, style and grace that few see in theatre today.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead, playing at the New World Stage Festival at Harbourfront Centre and written in Apartheid torn South Africa in 1972, is another mark of Brook's brilliance. Using little more than cardboard and tape...oh yeah, and two unbelievable performers, Brook's comfort is evident as he presents this powerful political piece.

Brook understands that Theatre relies primarily on the actor-audience interaction and the truth that comes out of that. It is immediate. It is intimate. To see one of his pieces is to truly witness the essence of theatre history being created right before you, and which permeates the entire stage. It is infectious.

Most directors will say that good casting is half the battle. His focused use of the two actors, each playing several roles, sometimes even pretending to play several roles, is a perfect example of his talent at using his actors to achieve real life. The space is used to its fullest and the actors fill that space with explosive energy and intensity and humour that is bitter sweet.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead, one of the three 'statement plays' by Athol Fugard, Jon Kani and Winston Ntshona, is a story about two men who 'stick it' to the oppressive society in which they live. It is about township life. Their insignificance in South Africa as 'Black Men' determines who they are by passbook and number. When Sizwe realizes his pass book has expired, forcing him to leave the only place he is able to work and support his family, he goes to a friend for help. The two happen upon a dead body at night, find the man's passbook on him, and hatch a plan. Sizwe has the opportunity to take the dead man's identity, take care of his family as well as beat the system. Does he risk the danger? What choice does he have?

This is, of course, a crude summary of the play. There is so much more. There is an abundance of commentary buried deep within the story, and the presentation of it is so dynamic that there are times when one need not listen to the words as the story is clear through the actions of the performances. A real luxury. This is what true theatre should be, done by one of the best. We should watch and learn.

Sizwe Banzi is Dead runs until April 22nd at the Harbourfront Centre.

Photograph of Habib Dembele and Pitcho Womba Konga taken by Mario Del Curto

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